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How participatory budgeting can strengthen our democracy
20th September 2023 • Trending Globally: Politics and Policy • Trending Globally: Politics & Policy
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Imagine if, when you were in middle school, an Ivy League professor came to your school and told you that you were going to be part of an experiment. You were going to get to decide how the money in your school was spent. 

What would you want to spend it on? How would you convince your classmates that your idea was best? Furthermore, would you even believe what this professor was telling you? 

Jonathan Collins is a professor of political science at the Watson Institute, and has recently been turning this hypothetical into a reality for students in the Providence area. He's been helping to design and evaluate what are known as participatory budgeting projects, and they're not just for students. In towns and cities around the world, everyday people are being let into the budgeting process of their communities. The effects have been profound, both on the local budgets, and on communities that have long felt marginalized and disempowered. 

"There's just something magical that can happen when there's skin in [the] game…the moment that you give them an opportunity to feel that they are a part of the stakes? I think the possibilities are endless," explained Collins. 

On this episode Dan Richards talks with Jonathan about participatory budgeting — where it came from, what it looks like on the ground, and how it might help strengthen our democracy, one community at a time. 

Learn more about the Watson Institute's other podcasts

Learn more about participatory budgeting in Rhode Island

Learned about PAVED, Browns democratic innovation research initiative

Photo credit: Nick Dentamaro


[MUSIC PLAYING] DANIEL RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. Imagine if when you were in middle school, a fancy ivy league professor came to your class and told you that you were going to become part of an experiment. An experiment where you got to decide how the money in your school would be spent. What would you want to spend it on?

Maybe new computers, better school lunch. How would you convince other people that your idea was best? And maybe before you even get to all that, would you even believe what this professor was telling you?

JONATHAN COLLINS: There's this moment of almost kind of shock and disbelief because, especially in the communities that I tend to work with, that's not how it works. We don't tell government how to spend money.

DANIEL RICHARDS: That's Jonathan Collins.

JONATHAN COLLINS: I'm an Assistant Professor of Political Science Education and Public Policy. Or, I guess, to be more specific, I'm the Mary Tefft and John Hazen White Senior Assistant Professor of Political Science Education and International and Public Affairs here at Brown University.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Wow. That's a mouthful.

JONATHAN COLLINS: Yeah. My pinky goes up every time I say it.

DANIEL RICHARDS: And recently, he has been making this hypothetical a reality for students in the Providence area. What Jonathan is doing is part of a broader movement around the idea of something called participatory budgeting. In schools but also in cities and towns around the world, everyday people are increasingly being let into the budgeting processes in their communities. The effects have been profound and not always what you might expect.

JONATHAN COLLINS: Underneath the weird and wonkiness of the concept, there's just like so much beauty and joy.


DANIEL RICHARDS: On this episode, how participatory budgeting works, what it looks like in the real world, and how it could help strengthen our democracy, one community at a time.


Jonathan is a professor of political science. But he didn't come to that field through an interest in capital P politics as one might think of it.

JONATHAN COLLINS: I grew up in Jackson, Tennessee. A little small town outside of Memphis. I didn't grow up in a very political household. I didn't come from a family where we talked about politics at the dinner table. Voting was important, but it never seemed to be connected to the real world struggles that were happening for me and my family and in my community.

DANIEL RICHARDS: To the extent politics was a part of his life, Jonathan didn't really associate it with government or elected officials.

JONATHAN COLLINS: I mean, the mayor of our town was a guy who moved up the ranks in the local parks and recreations department. And so you know when we saw government action or government intervention, especially at the local level, it was you know, opening up park space for different events.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Jonathan saw the power and importance of politics in other parts of his life growing up.

JONATHAN COLLINS: Being really deeply entrenched into the Black community of a really small town in the south, when I looked and I saw politics or like civic engagement, it was more so coming from, you know, our church. Or some of the civic organizations like the local NAACP chapter. And it was always more of a community sort of grassroots effort that I continued to see as the thing that brought people together and less so government.

DANIEL RICHARDS: That was the politics Jonathan was interested in. Which he went on to try and study in college. But a lot of what he was being taught in political science classes wasn't all that interesting to him.

JONATHAN COLLINS: I studied American politics, but I didn't find voting or the study of voting to be particularly interesting. I didn't care about a lot of the things that you should care about when you studied American politics. And as a result, you know, it was a bit isolating. I was always a bit off kilter.


I was chasing something visceral. Like, I wanted an idea of politics. And I wanted to study the impact of an idea of politics that you could feel. Something that had a real impact in people's lives that made a difference. And so I started studying this stuff on democratic innovation and reading about participatory democracy and participatory budgeting and the light bulb went off.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Participatory budgeting grew out of democratic activist movements in Brazil in the nineteen-eighties. And it's mostly what it sounds like. Having citizens actively participate in crafting their town or city's budget.

JONATHAN COLLINS: Where some sort of government organization or agency that is in charge of disseminating resources, they say, OK. Look. We're going to take a slice of this and we're going to allocate it towards this process. And whatever you decide to do with that process, that's exactly how we'll spend the money. Whatever the community votes on, that's what's implemented, regardless of what the elected officials may feel about the choice.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Studies have shown that municipalities that adopted participatory budgeting around Brazil spent on average, more of their budget on education and sanitation. And infant mortality rates in these communities decreased by roughly 20%. Today, the movement has spread around the world. There are over 1,500 towns and cities that have integrated some aspect of participatory budgeting into their government. But what interested Jonathan most about these projects was the way they affected communities beyond changes to any one single budget.

JONATHAN COLLINS: The idea of participatory budgeting is interesting to me, because I think it has this capacity for really deepening and strengthening our civil society. And so that's what I wanted to evaluate.


DANIEL RICHARDS: He connected with a leading expert in the design of participatory budgeting projects who was based in Rhode Island.

JONATHAN COLLINS: Probably the best thing that happened to me was meeting Pam Jennings-- shout out to Pam, who has been doing participatory budgeting work in Rhode Island and also in new York City for years.

DANIEL RICHARDS: And in Twenty Twenty-One, Jonathan, Pam, and their colleagues started to work with the city of Central Falls Rhode Island on a new experiment in participatory budgeting. Central Falls is a small relatively low-income city just north of Providence. In Twenty Twenty, the Central Falls School District set aside $100,000 in federal COVID relief funds for their school system, which they wanted to let their residents decide how to spend directly.

Jonathan, Pam, and a few of their colleagues led the design of a participatory budgeting project for the city. Jonathan also designed a study to measure how the project impacted residents' attitudes.

JONATHAN COLLINS: Yeah. And I started to design like, well, here's how we can evaluate its impact and assess it, here's how we can be just careful and rigorous about really showing why this is a golden practice.

DANIEL RICHARDS: They launched the project, which was called Voces Con Poder in Twenty Twenty-One. And before we get into how the money was spent or what Jonathan found in his studies, maybe this is a good point to pause and actually talk about what a participatory budgeting project looks like on the ground.

Is it just a big town hall meeting, hands up for new computers, more staff in an after-school program? Well, it's a little more complicated than that. As Jonathan and Pam designed it, it would start for a resident of Central Falls, as many things do these days, with an email.

JONATHAN COLLINS: An invitation to see if you'd be interested in participating in this new participatory budgeting initiative. If you express interest, then you would have been put into a pool. And then from that pool, we would randomly select. We ended up selecting around 40 delegates.

DANIEL RICHARDS: And if you are selected as a delegate?

JONATHAN COLLINS: OK. So then you come to the cafeteria of the middle school and you start to go through the sessions. They meet twice a week for eight weeks.

DANIEL RICHARDS: And this is where the project starts to become about something bigger than just how to spend $100,000 1 year in 1 school district.


Experts come to these sessions and teach the delegates how municipal budgets, typically, work and how much different types of educational equipment might cost. These sessions give context for thinking about how to most effectively spend this money. And in between these sessions, if you're a delegate--

JONATHAN COLLINS: You'll also be going back out into your community and talking to people to get a sense of the kinds of things that they're interested in, what are the largest problems that they have with the school system, things that they would like to see improved.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Eventually, the delegates break up into smaller groups--

JONATHAN COLLINS: Tasked with coming up with a specific line item budget for how you would spend this allotment of money.

DANIEL RICHARDS: So as you can see, it's not a small commitment to be one of these delegates. And let us not forget this particular project was happening in the year Twenty Twenty-One.

JONATHAN COLLINS: We're all wearing masks because COVID was COVID at that point.

DANIEL RICHARDS: In a lot of ways, these were not your typical municipal budget meetings.

JONATHAN COLLINS: This is in the evenings. Folks were bringing their kids with them to the meetings. Some of the delegates only spoke Spanish. You'll see myself and you'll see a few young adults. These are my research assistants who are working with me. Facilitating the meeting you'll see Pam Jennings, you'll also see a woman providing translation services for the folks who were Spanish speaking only.

What was also really cool is you'll see from time to time, a city council member, you'll see the mayor, you'll see school board members at the meetings going from table to table, listening to conversations.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Over the course of these sessions, delegates refine and finalize their budget proposals. And then finally, voting day. Residents show up and each group presents their budget proposal. People hear the pitches and vote.

JONATHAN COLLINS: And you're going to see in the gym on that day, official ballots donated by the Secretary of State's Office for the state of Rhode Island.

DANIEL RICHARDS: But unlike most elections, this particular referendum in Central Falls, it felt more like a celebration.

JONATHAN COLLINS: You're going to hear music playing, you're going to see trucks outside, and you're going to see people having a good time. You'll see people casting their ballots, hopefully, in favor of your proposal. But if not, you're fine because you know that all the groups were deeply committed to improving our community. And then people will vote and will go home.


DANIEL RICHARDS: So what did people end up voting on?

JONATHAN COLLINS: We had a range of different proposals that they put together. There was a group that focused on school safety, there was a group that focused on improving the overall school environment, as a group that focused on a plan for supporting bilingual students. There was a group that focused on improving the mental health of kids. And what ended up getting the most votes was actually a proposal around extracurricular programs and after-school programs.

DANIEL RICHARDS: So organizing this election day and this whole process, this wasn't all that you did on the project. You also were measuring how delegates attitudes towards local government may be changed as a result of being part of this project. What did you find there?

JONATHAN COLLINS: We saw a double-digit changes in their propensity to do certain kinds of civic things. So they became much more likely to say they would speak up at a public meeting to participate in a group discussion with people that they didn't know. They were more likely to contact government officials, to address a concern. More likely, to join a group or organization or take a leadership role in a group or organization as a result of participating in this process.

DANIEL RICHARDS: So what do you see as the most valuable aspect of participatory budgeting? Is it how the money gets reallocated as a result of involving community members? Or is it the sort of way it affects people and these communities longer term in how they think about politics and their involvement in it?

JONATHAN COLLINS: Definitely the latter. You know, the money really is beside the point.


DANIEL RICHARDS: And Jonathan found that the project brought value to the community that even his surveys couldn't capture.

JONATHAN COLLINS: I'm forever impressed by the Voces Con Poder delegates. They come into this cafeteria, complete strangers. Maybe seeing each other in passing as fellow members of the community. But no real relations. And by the end of it, after the eight weeks, I mean, it's like family. It's like they've gone through something with people who were once strangers and now, they consider them almost like family. And they're bonded by this experience of having-- even if it's a small impact, an impact on their community. And so like seeing that, the data can't capture that.


DANIEL RICHARDS: Voces Con Poder helped prove to Jonathan the wide-ranging impact participatory budgeting could have. It also helped make clear to him that maybe when it comes to democratic participation, we sometimes sell Americans a little short.

JONATHAN COLLINS: And this goes back to the political science literature. We assume that the vast majority of the electorate or really the American public don't have strong opinions on policy.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Or even worse, if they do have strong opinions, they're bad ones.

JONATHAN COLLINS: We assume that if you give, especially like people in communities of color, low income communities, if you give them the ability to decide what we spend money on, maybe they'll pick something frivolous and counterproductive.

DANIEL RICHARDS: It was the opposite of what Jonathan and his team found in Central Falls. After that project, Jonathan wanted to take these ideas one step further. You see, in Central Falls, they had brought adult residents into the budgeting process for the city school district. But what if they brought in the students themselves?


As Jonathan put it--

JONATHAN COLLINS: We assume that, oh, if you give kids the power to tell us how we spend money, they're just going to ask for like sprite water fountains, right? We wanted to show like, no. People come together, they have very clear, coherent, sensible, reasoned ideas. And the experience of being a part of a process that listens to their ideas and takes it seriously and turns that into something tangible and real, that creates these civic habits that they can engage in in the future.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Which brings us back to the scene you heard about at the beginning of this episode. This past summer, Jonathan and his colleagues at Brown worked with the Providence School District to let students decide how to spend $100,000 of the district's budget. It wasn't just the challenge of the project that interested Jonathan.

JONATHAN COLLINS: Adolescence. You know, this is when your identity is being formed. This is when you sort of come to realize who you are. And, you know, if we can in some small way during that period of time, get them to understand that a part of who you are is being an active democratic citizen who can influence the way that your community looks, how your community is supported, if we can also send that message during that critical developmental time, that creates these civic habits that they can engage in in the future. So we brought an entire eighth grade to campus.


DANIEL RICHARDS: The program called Power to the Pupil brought Providence eighth graders to Brown for an accelerated version of the participatory budgeting process that John, Pam, and their team had led in Central Falls. Delegates were selected and taught about how municipal budgeting works.

JONATHAN COLLINS: I think it was pretty ambitious. But the kids were great. And they made it work. They did everything that we asked them to do, they were serious and earnest and having discussions about how we spend the money. They were offering really good thoughtful ideas.

DANIEL RICHARDS: So what did they ultimately decide to spend the money on?

JONATHAN COLLINS: The three things that surfaced to the top were mental health support for students, hands-on learning and skill-based learning opportunities. Then we spent two days at the school working with delegates on the back end, who took the ideas from their peers and turned that into an actual line item budget of like, this is what we're going to spend the $100,000 on.


DANIEL RICHARDS: And then in terms of the political science research that you do as well, what have your findings been so far on this more recent project? Like, how did participating in this affect how teenagers, maybe, think about working in or with their government?

JONATHAN COLLINS: They expressed more of an interest in joining clubs or organizations. They were more supportive of the idea that kids should be a part of these kinds of processes.

DANIEL RICHARDS: And of course, one experience with participatory budgeting isn't going to permanently change how all these students think about their school experience or how they think about democracy. But as Jonathan put it--

JONATHAN COLLINS: We can't ensure that they will go into a school and immediately take on leadership positions and start, you know, researching the budget for the school online and start putting together petitions for the school to you know restructure their spending habits or anything like that. But what we can do is sow the seed of curiosity.

DANIEL RICHARDS: And as a growing number of people in government and academia are starting to recognize this type of public social more visceral version of politics, the beneficial effects of it ripple out in sort of unpredictable ways.

JONATHAN COLLINS: So one of the interesting things that happens with these kinds of projects-- and this gets back to the whole idea of the money being beside the point, is there are these organic things that happen just from identifying a problem.

DANIEL RICHARDS: One example, students, during Power to the Pupil Day, while discussing how to spend the $100,000--

JONATHAN COLLINS: They really started to get deeply into conversations around student-based internships and different kinds of opportunities to learn about careers and professions like while they're still in school. And so one of the things that the district representatives ended up realizing was that, oh, wait a minute. They do have a kind of a student internship program that they've been building.

And it's not internships, because, you know, obviously, child labor laws, like, you have to be very careful about like work and internships for kids at that age but like, they did have a program where they try to organize like career fairs and things for kids like expose them to career opportunities early.

So then it was the students, our delegates, who were bringing awareness to the fact that, well, oh, yeah. We haven't seen this at our school. And so then now the plan is to try to figure out, how do we expand the district's existing program once we can figure this out. This could really be something that changes the dynamic of the experience for the kids in the district.

DANIEL RICHARDS: So it really is like giving these students this money is a sign of, you know, responsibility and trust that then maybe makes them feel more engaged and like they have more agency just generally.

JONATHAN COLLINS: Yeah. I think you nailed it in that it's challenging to get kids initially to care about like their school and really see the school as their school. They see the school as like, it's a building. We go to it, sure. Maybe the identify of the teacher as my teacher. And maybe in passing, they use the phrase, my school.

But you don't really feel like the school is yours in the sense that like, you can dictate what's happening there. And there's just something magical that can happen when their skin in game.


DANIEL RICHARDS: Whether we're talking about middle school students or fully grown adults, Jonathan's work has shown that letting people help shape the budgets of their government, as technical as it sounds, can have a lasting and surprising effect on people. And in turn, on their communities.

JONATHAN COLLINS: The moment that you give them an opportunity to feel that they can dictate, that they are a part of stakes, I think the possibilities are endless.


DANIEL RICHARDS: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by me-- Dan Richards and Zach Hirsch. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you want to read more about participatory budgeting or any of Rhode Island's initiatives that you heard about on today's episode, we'll put links in the show notes.

And if you like Trending Globally, please subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you listen to podcasts. If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for guests or topics, send us an email at Again, that's all one word, We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.





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